Magazine article Newsweek

The Aging Brain; Old Genes, New Findings

Magazine article Newsweek

The Aging Brain; Old Genes, New Findings

Article excerpt

Byline: James Bakalar and Anthony L. Komaroff, M.D. (Bakalar is editor of the Harvard Mental Health Letter; Komaroff is editor in chief of the Harvard Health Letter(health.harvard.edu/NEWSWEEK).)

Are the changes in the brain that accompany aging caused by damage to the underlying genes involved in functions such as learning, memory and the transmission of nerve impulses? Exciting new research suggests that they may be, and the findings could eventually help predict and prevent degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

A research team at Harvard Medical School studied changes in gene activity in the preserved brains of people who ranged in age from 26 to 106. Examining tissue from the prefrontal cortex, a center of higher mental functions, they uncovered some surprises. While most of the genes did not show changes with aging, about 4 percent became either more or less active. The differences in gene activity were caused by damage that occurred mainly in the regions of DNA that turn genes on, which are known as promoters. In most cases, the damage was caused by oxygen free radicals--hyperactive molecules released by the chemical reactions that power cells. Prominent among the genes that lost their youthful vigor were genes that affect learning and memory, cellular energy production and the transmission of impulses between brain cells. (To compensate for this oxidative injury, genes that protect tissues from oxidants and genes that repair DNA had become more active.)

The gene-promoter damage observed in the study began surprisingly early in life. …

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